A Gainesville military veteran pleaded guilty Thursday in Hall County Superior Court to charges related to firing a hunting rifle at Georgia State Patrol officers last summer at the Cleveland Highway post.
With recent violence between law enforcement and civilians preying on his mind, Judge Jason Deal sentenced Leighton Beaux Marchetta, 23, to three years in prison for two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
“I’ve thought a lot about this case and a lot of things come to mind,” Deal said at the sentencing hearing, noting the “tumultuous time” in America right now, with a “chaos and sickness” that has pitted law enforcement versus the public.
But Deal also reflected on Marchetta’s intent, which he acknowledged was different than the racially and politically motivated violence seen in deadly ambushes on police in Louisiana and Texas.
“I don’t think you meant to hurt officers,” Deal said, adding that he believes Marchetta’s military service and resulting post-traumatic stress disorder precipitated the attack. “I see that distinction.”
Marchetta will only have to serve 24 months if he is admitted into a Veterans Affairs mental health treatment program. He will also be required to complete a veterans accountability court program during his lengthy probation.
According to GSP officials, Marchetta pulled up to the post around 8 a.m. in a Ford F350 pickup truck.
In testimony Thursday, Allison described how the troopers took cover and returned fire after Marchetta attacked while they approached.
Allison said he heard Marchetta say, “You guys are going to have to kill me,” and recalls hearing two rounds discharged.
This became a contested point when the Georgia Bureau Investigation retrieved just one shell casing from the scene. Marchetta’s testimony and previous statements are contradictory on this matter.
“I know my life ... was in grave danger,” Allison said.
“My family’s going through my mind,” he added. “He wasn’t wearing a shirt saying, ‘I’m here to commit suicide.’ I had no idea what his intention was.”
Thompson returned fire and struck Marchetta in the upper right shoulder. He was quickly taken into custody.
Choked up and voice scratchy, Thompson testified that he feared for his life and has himself suffered from PTSD since.
“I’m going to be killed right here,” Thompson said his thought was during the attack.
Thompson’s wife also testified about the toll its taken on her husband, who now has nightmares.
Lee Marchetta set up a tent in the Hall County Courthouse courtyard Thursday to raise awareness about PTSD, handing out literature and talking with passersby.
Marchetta said he knew his son “was having problems, but I didn’t realize how deep it was.”
Once Lee Marchetta began looking into PTSD, he realized that while the condition may be commonly associated with returning troops, it is widespread across society.
“And it’s a problem that no one wants to address ... there’s a stigma that’s attached to it,” Marchetta said. “If you tell someone you have PTSD, they automatically assume that you belong in a loony bin or that you just need to get over it.
Veterans and advocates in attendance at the sentencing hearing, several of whom spoke on Marchetta’s behalf, said they believed that a treatment-focused sentence was most suitable.
“You could see the slide,” Lee Marchetta said of his son’s suffering from nightmares and flashbacks.
Leighton Marchetta worked as a communications specialist, but encountered combat, he said, on three occasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including an improvised explosive device that killed a fellow soldier.
“You could feel the vibrations through the vehicle as it was being hit,” he said.
Leighton Marchetta also hinted at survivor’s guilt resulting from the suicide of his closest friend in the military.
“We did everything together,” he said, from the mission to the nightclubs.
Clashes with superiors preceded Marchetta’s own suicide attempt. After his discharge, he said he only grew more disillusioned.
“They’d had enough,” Leighton Marchetta said. “They were done with me.”
Later, he felt “let down” by a lost job opportunity in California and feeling like he could never live up to his father’s expectations.
“At the time, I was extremely ... I had nothing left,” Marchetta said. “I felt like everything was over. I just wanted to end it.”
In the end, Leighton Marchetta said he chose the patrol post because it was simply the closest law enforcement office to his home. He said he was influenced by news reports and media images of deadly altercations with law enforcement.
“I thought it was reasonable that they would act the same way or more so to a person with a rifle,” he added.
Deal said his sentence was “much lighter” than usual, but he hoped that Marchetta could find the treatment he needs.
“We’re going to try to end that cycle now,” Deal said.